Force Z was the codename for the Royal Navy force that was based at Singapore when the war in the Far East developed in December 1941. After Pearl Harbour, only the Royal Navy had a major naval presence in Asia and Force Z represented what was meant to be the best of the navy. The two most powerful ships in Force Z were the ‘Repulse’ and ‘Prince of Wales’.
The arrival of Force Z ended what had been a less than positive time between the Admiralty and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Admiralty had wanted to send out a naval force to the Far East as a show of strength. On this Churchill agreed. However, he wanted a small but very powerful force to be based at Singapore. The Admiralty wanted a smaller force sent out in instalments to be based in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Churchill overrode them arguing:
“A KG V (King George V class battleship) exercises a vague general fear and menaces all points at once. It appears, and disappears, causing immediate reactions and perturbations on the other side."
However, while many welcomed the arrival of both capital ships, there were a few who were quietly concerned that Force Z had no air cover. ‘HMS Indomitable’, an aircraft carrier, had meant to be in Force Z but it had been damaged while undergoing sea trials and did not sail with ‘Repulse’ and ‘Prince of Wales’. There were also very few modern Allied fighter aeroplanes based in Malaya. This made Force Z very susceptible to an aerial attack.
However, for many Force Z was a major deterrent against Japanese aggression. ‘HMS Prince of Wales’ had only just been completed in 1941 and was one of the world’s most modern fighting ships. Her foremost weapons were two turrets of 4 x 14 inch guns. She also had another 2 x 14 inch guns forward in a turret above the 4 x 14 inch guns. To support these guns, ‘Prince of Wales’ also had 16 x 5.25 guns and 60 x 2-pounder anti-aircraft guns. Her armoured hull varied in thickness from 4.5 inches to 15 inches. ‘Prince of Wales had a top speed of 29 knots. ‘HMS Repulse’ was a veteran of World War One having been completed in 1916. Designed as a battle cruiser, ‘Repulse’ was short of deck armour, which at its maximum was 4 inches – not enough to protect against an aerial attack. However, at 26,500 tons, ‘Repulse’ carried 6 x 15 inch guns, 12 x 4 inch guns and 4-inch anti-aircraft guns. In Force Z, Captain John Leach commanded ‘HMS Prince of Wales’ and Captain William Tennant commanded ‘Repulse’.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the attacks in mainland Asia swiftly turned confidence about the impact Force Z might have. Churchill changed his view and suggested, “the whereabouts (of Force Z) should become unknown as quickly as possible."
The overall commander of the fleet in Asia was Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. On December 8th, Phillips met with officers on board ‘Prince of Wales’. Reports indicated that Japanese forces had landed at Kota Bharu in the very northeast of Malaya and at Singora in southern Thailand. Phillips decided that the best use of Force Z was to sail north from Singapore and attack the Japanese along Malaya’s eastern coastline before their navy arrived to support the landings. However, Phillips realised the importance of aerial support and requested such from what the RAF could offer. On the afternoon of December 8th, as Force Z steamed north, Phillips received a message that he could expect no air cover. Therefore, a vital requirement as laid down by Phillips went unanswered.
The weather did give Force Z some hope, however. As they steamed north, mist and rain concealed their movement. But as Force Z reached its destination, the weather suddenly improved and any element of surprise was lost as visibility was very good. Phillips ordered that Force Z should return to Singapore. As the ships steamed south, Phillips received a message that the Japanese had landed at Kuantan, halfway down the Malayan eastern coastline.
At 11.07 on December 10th, Japanese aircraft attacked Force Z. The attack started at 11.19. ‘Repulse’ was hit in the hangar where the spotter aircraft was based. The fire was quickly dealt with and within ten minutes ‘Repulse’ was able to continue at 25 knots.
At 11.44 ‘Prince of Wales’ was attacked. Two torpedoes hit the ship and did great damage to her. Her steering gear and driving mechanism were put out of action as well as her radar.
At 12.00, ‘Repulse’ came under renewed attack. The battle cruiser avoided all nineteen torpedoes fired at it.
A new formation of Japanese bombers came in. Four torpedoes hit the ‘Prince of Wales’ and five hit the ‘Repulse’. The ‘Repulse’ quickly listed and Captain Tennant gave the order the abandon ship. At 12.33, ‘Repulse’ sank.
‘Prince of Wales’ became the sole target for the Japanese bombers once the ‘Repulse’ had sunk. ‘HMS Express’ was called alongside to take off all the crew who were not needed. At 13.20 ‘Prince of Wales’ sank and her captain, Leach, and Admiral Phillips went down with her.
The ‘Prince of Wales’ lost 327 of its company of 1,612 while the ‘Repulse’ lost 513 of its company of 1,309.
On December 11th, Churchill received the news.